Uncle Stephen had turned up unexpectedly, carrying a green canvas sausage bag, that smelled like he was carrying a dead dog’s carcass inside it. Gerry thought that his uncle Stephen was mair his uncle, than he was Alex’s, because he’d been given two strands of penny liquorice and Alex only got a bit and a half. Family relations were a tangled web. The smaller kids: Tracy, Ann, Sean and Catronia had scurried behind their ma, like a set of brood chicks waiting to see if it was safe to come out. The unfamiliar feel and taste of wormy liquorice finally won them round.
Alex had been more impressed with the way that he smoked fag after fag and stabbed them out. He smelt of oil and the sea and all things exotic, but his dialect was of the streets around their tenement block.
‘Don’t get me wrong,’ he said to his sister, ‘Australia is great if you’re a convict, or willing to work for nothing. And even if you do want to work for nothing there’s no work.
‘It took me six months to get back here working back and forth on tramp steamers all the way to Chile and back, for even less money than I got before working for nothing.’ He stabbed out another fag.
‘Have you got any fags hen?’ he asked, running his fingers through his thinning hair for inspiration, showing the tide coming in on the hard Sunday collar, patting at the pockets in his woollen coat and matching grubby waistcoat and then his best dress trousers, with a crease like a razor, for clues to where the other cigarettes might have gone.
She pulled a packet of fags out of her square apron pocket, which held everything from hankies for snot noses, to childhood nothings, and handed him one. Stephen snapped the tip off before flipping it into his mouth like a cowboy and lighting it. He sucked in life- giving smoke and continued on, flicking the ash into the grate. Somehow he’d found his way into Da’s chair by the fire. ‘That soup looks great,’ he said.
He needed a shave, but supped the soup down mopping up the plate with the last of the bread as if the was in an American film. ‘That bastard,’ he said, banging the spoon down and, like a showman, with all eyes upon him, licked the plate clean. ‘That bastard,’ he growled again, ‘and I apologise for calling him a bastard, especially in front of the kids, but he is a bastard, owed me three months wages. And he was short. I signed on as an engineer. All Glasgow men are natural engineers, but the ship’s engines weren’t up to much. I’d counted it all out as I peeled potato after potato. I don’t ever want to see another potato’.
Stephen looked at his sister’s face and from her big face to the small framed look of her children. He carried the same hurt look of incredulity from one to the other, so that even the baby Eva could understand. She stopped jumping up and down for a second.
‘So I told him where to go. Didn’t I?’
‘And you know what?’ he said. The exasperation was in the sneering shape of his mouth, the way that he held his head. A high wire act of words ready for the next words to fall from his lips and end it all.
‘He said that was all I was getting. So I punched him clean out. And you know what they did?’ He shook his head as if he still couldn’t believe the injustice of it all. ‘They put me in the brig.’ He looked from one child to another and then to his sister for confirmation that it had really happened. ‘You know what the brig is,’ he brayed and then answered his own question with a raised voice that would have struck open heaven with the injustice of it all, ‘the brig is where they put people after they’ve robbed them. I’d have probably have been better if I’d just swum home’.
‘And that is why,’ he said, sitting back settling himself into Da’s chair, ‘I’ve came back without a penny. But don’t you worry,’ he nodded at his sister, ‘I’m willing to work for practically nothing. All’s I need is a bite to eat and place to put my head at night’.
‘But we’ve no money and nowhere to put you,’ said his sister.
‘Well that’s fine,’ he said, taking a deep breath and, coughing fit to burst, barely made it out of Da’s chair. He looked around him, as if disorientated, for his canvas bag. ‘I travelled all this way to see you and your wee family and I’m no’ wanted. That’s fine. Fine. And I’d brought you a wee present too.’
‘What is it? What is it?’ clamoured the children jumping up and down and pulling at the hems of their mother’s skirt.
Stephen started empting the green canvas sack. Shirts, socks, trousers and an old blanket appeared on the floor. They were pulled out like a magician emptying his wardrobe of tricks and showing that miraculously, one balled up piece of clothing, could be dirtier than the other. Just when the sack looked empty his long arms reached in and pulled out one partner- less shoe, for a left foot. Alex looked down at Stephen’s feet. The shoe looked was at least three sizes too small and would probably have fitted Gerry, his younger brother. But Stephen trumped him, his long fingers found their way into the shoe and pulled out a mouth organ. He ran it through his fingers blowing into it and producing a windy rasp that only kids could colour in as music.
‘Here’s your present,’ he said to his sister, handing her the mouth organ.
Her children pulled at her arms to give them a shot of the magical musical instrument. Stephen flung the shoe back in the canvas bag and looked from one dirty package on the floor to the other, avoiding his sister’s eyes, as if deciding what to put in next.
‘He can sleep in my bed,’ said Alex, through the hurdy-gurdy of childish pushing and shoving and wet mouths applied to the worn pipes of the mouth organ.
Stephen held one balled shirt in his hand. ‘A don’t want to be any bother,’ he said.
‘A suppose you can stay for a few days until you get settled,’ said his sister.
‘If you’re sure then,’ said Stephen, strolling away from the pile of his cast off clothing and looking out the window. ‘If you’ve got a measly three penny bit a’ll nip out and get a packet of fags and start looking for work right away. That way when I’m working you’ll have two wages coming into the house instead of one. And you can start putting a wee bit by.’
‘Ta,’ he said, when his sister handed him the money. ‘You’ll soon be raking it in’.
Stephen pulled his cloth cap over his forehead. His head was up and he scanned the horizon sure that a man like himself, a worker, would find something. The way he was dressed it wouldn’t have surprised him in the least if he was offered a job in the offices of one of the bigger companies. Maybe, with his engineering background, a supervisor’s job in one of the shipyards. He didn’t want to rush things, be pinned down in the wrong job, with crap money, working sixteen hours a day and barely able to raise his head. The more he thought about the slower he walked and the more cautious he became.
He bumped into one of the guys he’d went to school with, Derek Smiley, outside Maise’s the tobacconist. They sized each other up, like two circling dogs, before either said anything.
He puffed away at one of Derek’s Capstan Full Strengh and tapped at the packet, with the picture of a sailor. ‘I’ve been on the boats,’ he said, taking a deep breath and puffing out his chest, ‘an engineer, so of you hear of anything let me know and I’ll be right down there that day’.
Derek edged away, two-stepped onto the road, looked him up and down. ‘What did you dae for a bevy? I know you liked a drink’.
‘Nah, I didn’t bother. Didn’t miss it at all. You know it’s a responsible position. You don’t need to drink and you’re better not to,’ he said, flicking the fag away in response to Derek’s suggesting that they go for a pint. ‘A wouldnae thank you for one. I’m tee-total now signed the pledge in Wodonga. Best thing I’ve ever did’.
‘You sure? A just had a wee win at the cards. Ten pounds,’ he said, pulling out an impressive amount of coins of one pocket of his overalls, then the other, to show Stephen. ‘Just one. For old times sake.’
Stephen smacked his lips together. ‘Alright. See you in the Macintosh Bar in ten minutes. I don’t want to be a killjoy if you insist on buying me a few drams’.